The Nicole Holofcener Library (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparisons)

Today I thought we'd take a look at the video disc catalog of one of my favorite filmmakers, Nicole Holofcener.  She started under Woody Allen (as a PA on Hannah and Her Sisters and apprentice editor for A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy), and her body of work isn't that large yet, but she's been making features since 1996.  She also directs a lot of television (Orange Is the New Black, Sex & the City, Six Feet Under, Parks & Rec, etc), but I've seen some of it and read several interviews where she confirms my feelings that she really disappears into her TV work.  So the episodes she works on don't really feel like little Holofcener films, but just one more entry in the series.  So seek them out if you're a fan of those shows she works on, but I'm going to be focusing on her films as writer and director.  So the line-up above is pretty much the ideal Holofcener collection to date, though there are other editions of most of those titles, which we'll get into.  And she did also write the screenplay for one film she didn't direct, Amy Berg's Every Secret Thing, which I've already covered in depth here.
Walking and Talking is Holofcener's first film and it feels that way.  It's got that vibe of the early Kevin Smith and Spike Lee era, like a young and low budget preening to show off their cleverness.  It's also more of a straight forward rom-com than most of her later work that grew out of being just genre fair.  Still, it's got a lot of great writing and a terrific cast, including Holofcener regular Catherine Keener, Kevin Corrigan, Anne Heche (who, despite having a reputation as maybe being a celebrity first and an actor second, is actually pretty good in this) and Liev Schreiber.  It's just that this film is more schitcky.  For example, Heche's character playing a student therapist and basically each of her patients is a bit.  We've actually got Vincent Pastore telling her he sees a little red devil, like in the cartoons.  It's like the equivalent of the wacky neighbor in a sitcom or a pleasant couple encountering a crazy waiter in a sketch show.  But the more naturalistic moments, like Keener's character struggling to accept change or the subplot of their cat getting cancer really work.  So overall, Walking and Talking is definitely worth having in your collection, but if you've never seen a Holofcener film before, I'd say pick another one to start with and then come back for this.
Miramax released this on DVD through Buena Vista back in 2002, with a disc looking not too different from their 1997 laserdisc.  It's widescreen, and at least it's anamorphic; but looking at it today, it definitely looks soft and, well... like an old DVD.  It's actually slightly window-boxed, but only a little around the sides, like they might've been guarding against overscan.  Or maybe I'm giving them too much credit.  Either way, it's weird and shouldn't be there.  The DVD is long out of print now anyway; and in 2011, Miramax reissued it with a new, ugly cover, this time through Echo Bridge [right].  I wasn't actually expecting anything, but in the back of my mind I was hoping for a little upgrade.  Maybe a new transfer had been struck from an HD television master or something.  But I rented it, and here are the results:
2002 Buena Vista DVD on top; 2011 Echo Bridge DVD below.  ...I think.
It's essentially the same disc.  I mean, it has a new label on it; but the menu and everything are identical, and yeah, it's the same old transfer, encoded with the same ol' window-boxing and everything.  It's also barebones, without the trailer or anything; just a couple of bonus trailers and a Miramax commercial.  The Buena Vista came with an insert while the Echo Bridge disc does not.  Both versions also provide two audio tracks: a basic stereo mix and a French dub, plus optional subtitles.  Things could be worse; it could be interlaced and non-anamorphic.  But it's just kinda cheap and a disappointment for fans.
Holofcener's work really matured with her second film, Lovely and Amazing, going from a quirky and entertaining little indie comedy to real film art that's still funny and entertaining.  Everything that worked about the first movie is here, including Keener as another character unable to deal with change in her life, though this time she's got some great new layers.  And everything that fell a little flat has been replaced by killer new material.  This film does overtly deal with feminine body and beauty issues, but where most films today (including some current Oscar nominees, cough cough) would come off patronizing and lame, this film handles in a brilliant and honest way.  The drama is also more affecting, where the previous film only really managed to make you feel that way about the cat.  This time you're really pulled into the intertwined stories of Keener, Emily Mortimer, Brenda Blythe and child actress Raven Goodwin, who actually won a lot of awards for this at the time.  I'm sure DVD Exotica regulars will also get a kick out of seeing Phantasm 2's James Le Gros in a fairly sizable role, not to mention a young Jake Gyllenhaal.
Lovely and Amazing was put out as a new release by Lions Gate in 2002, just a few months after Walking and Talking, but looking substantially better.  Still standard def, of course, but better compressed, and no weird window-boxing.  The film's 1.78:1 this time, contrast is a little stronger and the colors are more natural.  This was reissued in 2003 as part of Lions Gate's gimmicky Signature Series (according to Todd Solondz, they didn't even use the filmmaker's real signatures on the covers), but like all of those releases, they're the exact same discs.  So it doesn't matter which one you buy.  The audio is in 5.1, and includes optional English and Spanish subtitles.
And this release is no fancy special edition, but we do get something this time, and at least somebody put in a little effort.  The primary special features are four, very short featurettes (about 2-4 minutes each).  They're all on-camera interviews edited together, thankfully without clips of the film, considering how short they are, and they do manage to bring in most of the cast as well as Nicole herself.  We also get the trailer this time, plus one of the least exciting easter eggs of all time: a bonus trailer for an unrelated rom-com.  No insert this time, except for a Lions Gate catalog.  Really minimal stuff, but for us starved fans, at least it's not nothing.
Next up is Friends With Money, which was possibly her highest profile film - I mean, look at that screenshot; it's in 'scope for gosh sakes - but I think gets a bit of a bad rap.  Jennifer Aniston is one of the stars, and this came out when she was right at her peak, and audiences had very set expectations of what a Jennifer Aniston comedy was.  So I think some people were a little underwhelmed to receive a more grounded Holofcener film instead of more ribald date movie.  But taken as it is, it's pretty great.  The cast is spot on.  Aniston is suited for Holofcener's style, and alongside Frances McDormand, Joan Cusack and of course Catherine Keener, all of Holofcener manages to shine through whatever Sony may've mandated for this production.
2006 Sony DVD widescreen on top; fullscreen below.
Consequently, the 2006 Sony DVD is also Holofcener's only real special edition.  I mean look, they even give us a choice of viewing ratios: 2.35:1 and 1.32:1.  Obviously the prior is correct; but the latter gives us a peek behind the mattes, at least ...as well as chopping off some of the sides, of course.  For standard def, the picture looks pretty great, and is pretty representative of the top of the line in 2006, you know, considering there's a lot of handheld camerawork.  The audio is in 5.1, with an optional French dub, plus optional English and French subtitles.
And we get a healthy dose of extras.  Admittedly, no awesome two-hour documentary, but we do get Nicole Holofcener's only audio commentary (along with producer Anthony Bregman), an eleven minute making-of, and two featurettes: one looking at the Los Angeles premiere and the other a promotional talking heads piece.  That's probably the most they could squeeze onto a single-sided disc anyway, considering they gave us two versions of the film.  There's no trailer, which is a little surprising since they threw in a whopping eleven bonus trailers, but it's still the most satisfying special edition in the library.  Oh and the insert's just an ad for other Sony DVDs.
And now that we reach the new films, we finally get them in HD!  Please Give is a film that came and went pretty much under the radar.  Despite being back in 'scope with more Sony money, I'm not sure anybody even noticed besides her loyal fanbase, which is a shame because it's so good.  I feel like we're watching Catherine Keener grow up with us in these films like Daniel Radcliffe in the Harry Potter films.  Here she's married to Oliver Platt and concerned with her looming mortality because she lives a high quality of life seemingly at the expense of everyone around her.  We've got another terrific ensemble, with strong performances by Rebecca Hall and Amanda Peet as sisters and The Dick Van Dyke Show's Ann Morgan Guilbert playing their grandmother.
2010 Sony DVD on top; 2010 Sony blu-ray below.
So like I said, we're still in 2.35:1.  The HD obviously trumps the DVD, with a cleaner, less smudgy look.  But it's still soft and I'm noticing some edge enhancement halos (it's on the DVD, too).  Unfortunately, somebody at Sony had some bad ideas about "fixing" the picture up and wound up doing some harm.  Apparently, this was shot in 16mm, so perhaps a lot of effort went into making it look like a more typical, modern film.  It's no disaster, but the softness is disappointing.  The audio's in 5.1, in DTS-HD on the blu, and also includes a French dub plus English, French and Spanish subtitles.

Special features are minimal but not non-existent.  We get your standard 'making of' featurette, a brief Q&A with the director, a couple quick outtakes and the trailer.  And there's a bunch of bonus trailers.
Finally we come to her most recent film to date.  This one seemed to sit on a shelf for a little while, but wound up getting a lot of exposure when star James Gandofini died and this was his last picture.  Thankfully, Holofcener's Enough Said was a good enough film to stand up to that additional scrutiny.  It actually feels like a return, in a way, to Walking and Talking.  It's more of a traditional rom-com, and even stars a female lead who initially rejects her love interest for being physically unattractive.  I've never heard her say so or anything, but I sort of imagine Holofcener decided to take a second pass at her first film and update it with her more mature sensibilities.  Probably not, but if she did, it certainly worked.  I remember the trailer ham-fistedly edited some of the jokes, but the final film's quite good, while still being a lot more light-hearted than the last couple movies.  Having excellent co-stars Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Toni Collette and of course Catherine Keener, of course, really helps.  There might be a little less dramatic heft or meat on its bones; but it's still expertly made and charming.  Again, it's like Walking and Talking for grown-ups.
2014 Sony DVD on top; 2014 Sony blu-ray below.
And we're back to 1.85:1.  Happily, this has none of the issues we saw with Please Give.  It looks super crisp.  Even the DVD is a testament to how a first class transfer can shine through even in standard definition, and outshine some blus with weaker source masters to pull from.  Perhaps being a digital film (Holofcener's first, though she probably got some previous experience with the medium on television), where it had to pass through less processes to wind up on our home video discs, helped eliminate any hurtful alterations.  The audio is in 5.1 DTS-HD, with a French and Spanish dub, plus optional English, French and Spanish subtitles.
As far as extras, again we get a few little things.  There's about six minutes of outtakes, and five tiny featurettes, averaging 3-4 minutes apiece.  And unlike some others, these are heavy on clips from the film, and a few interview soundbites even repeat, so you have to sift to find tiny nuggets here.  Still, I highly prefer that over nothing.  The trailer's also on hand, and this release does come in a slipcover.  Oh, and interestingly, the outtakes (but not the other stuff) are a blu-ray exclusive; they're not on the DVD release.  I wonder how many people made the jump from DVDs to blu just for them?
So that's her entire catalog so far.  She's already filming her next film, The Land of Steady Habits, but apparently it's for Netflix, so we may have a long, annoying wait for any kind of physical release. In the meantime, you know what I'd love?  For Criterion to pick up her early DVD-only releases, restore them in 2 or 4k, and release them as an awesome trilogy set, like they did with Whit Stillman and Wallace Shawn.  Or even just the first two if Sony is difficult about licensing Friends With Money.  Fresh transfers, substantive extras with Holofcener and some of her great cast members, maybe even a retrospective documentary on her career, and throw in her still unreleased short film Angry.  That would be incredible.  And if they hustle, it could coincide with the release of her next film.  But in the meantime, this is what's out there.

2 comments:

  1. Hey John, this is a little off topic, but speaking of the movie 'Please Give', you should look up Howard Stern ripping Amanda Peet apart for her Letterman appearance when she was promoting the film. It's pretty funny. That should have been a special feature on the blu-ray!

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    1. Wow, that's crazy. I looked it up, and boy does he dislike her. What an unlikely pairing, though, that Stern wound up going to bat for Please Give!

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